SC Court of Appeals takes a deep dive into developer duty case

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Was I’On Village’s developer obligated to convey specific amenities to the HOA?

IOnLafayette

Photo courtesy of Iioncommunity.com

This case was called “convoluted” by our Court of Appeals, and I couldn’t agree more with that characterization! The February 27 decision involved I’On Village in Mt. Pleasant. * The community, founded in 1995, was named for the first mayor of the Town of Sullivan’s Island, Jacob Bond I’On and is a mixed use “new urbanist development”, meaning it consists of charming walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types.

At the heart of the case is the developer’s alleged promise to convey certain amenities in a residential community to the homeowners’ association. Specifically, homeowners allege the developers promised to convey a community dock and creekside park on a lot containing a boat ramp to the owners’ association but instead sold those amenities to a third party. The developers alleged that they promised to convey and did convey a “generic” community dock and creekside park to the association, but not the specific ones located on the boat ramp lot.

This blog will attempt to stay out of the weeds of this 27-page case in an effort to point out only those decisions of the Court that may be of interest to real estate practitioners.

Does a developer have a fiduciary relationship with the homeowners’ association and its members requiring it to convey common areas?

The Court’s answer is “yes”, but the duties of the developer should be determined by a careful reading of the restrictive covenants.

The developer had argued that the “business judgment” rule would control, and that absent a showing of bad faith, dishonesty or incompetence, the judgment of the developer should not be set aside in a judicial action. The Court rejected the argument that the business judgment rule precludes the existence of a fiduciary relationship. Citing an earlier case, the Court stated that the business judgment rule is compatible with the good faith requirement for fiduciaries.

The Court said a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists when one reposes a special confidence in another, so that the latter, in equity and good conscience, is bound to act in good faith with due regard to the interests of the one imposing the confidence.  Citing a second case, the Court said anyone acting in a fiduciary relationship shall not be permitted to make use of that relationship to benefit his own personal interests, specifically, a developer in control of an owners’ association may not make decisions that benefit the developer’s own interest at the expense of the association and its members.

However, the Court held, South Carolina precedent does not impose on developers a generic fiduciary duty to convey title to a subdivision’s common areas to the owners’ association in every case. Rather, the restrictive covenants of the subdivision controls. The Court decided that the record in the case did not support the duty of the developers to convey to the association the specific amenities demanded.

Does the after-acquired property doctrine apply to a recreational easement in South Carolina?

The Court’s answer is “no”.

In February of 2000, the developer conveyed to the owners’ association a “Recreational Easement and Agreement to Share Costs”. Curiously, the developer did not obtain title to the property in question until six months later. At trial, the circuit court issued an order declaring the document invalid and void ab initio.

The developer argued on appeal that the after-acquired property doctrine would have acted to ratify the easement when title was obtained, but the Court of Appeals, finding no South Carolina authority for the proposition that this doctrine applies to the grant of an easement, declined to apply the doctrine to the recreational easement in question.

 May a derivative action be filed by property owners when a developer-controlled owners’ association fails to protect the interests of the owners?

The Court’s answer is “maybe”, but only if the complaint properly outlines the efforts made by the owners to obtain the action sought from the board of directors of the association and the reasons for failure to obtain the action or for not making the effort. The pleadings in this case did not satisfy the “demand requirement” to the Court’s satisfaction nor did they allege facts indicating a demand on the board of directors would have been futile. So the Court rejected the derivative action.

Litigators may find fascinating long discussions about statutes of limitations in various causes of action, abuse of process, amalgamation of parties and awards of attorney’s fees, but I’m opting to spare dirt lawyers any discussion of those issues. Read the case if you find those issues captivating. This litigation is not over as the Court of Appeals remanded the case for consideration of several issues by the trial court. My guess is that we will probably visit this case again.

 *  Walbeck v. The I’On Company, LLC, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5588 (February 27, 2019)

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Upscale Mt. Pleasant Condo Project Subject of Arbitration Clause Dispute

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Court of Appeals sides with roofing supplier

The South Carolina Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 1 that will delight the drafters of corporate contracts who imbed arbitration clauses within their warranty provisions.  Whether the South Carolina Supreme Court will approve remains to be seen.

The dispute arises over the construction of One Belle Hall, an upscale condominium community in Mt. Pleasant. Tamko Building Products, Inc. was the supplier of the asphalt shingles for the community’s four buildings, and placed a mandatory binding arbitration clause within its warranty provision. The warranty purported to exclude all express and implied warranties and to disclaim liability for all incidental and consequential damages.

roof shingles

At some point after construction was completed, the owners’ association determined that the buildings were affected by moisture damage, water intrusion and termite damage, all resulting from various alleged construction defects. The developer contacted Tamko to report a warranty claim on the roof shingles, contending they were blistering and defective.  Tamko sent the developer a “warranty kit”, requiring the claimant to provide proof of purchase, samples of the allegedly defective shingles and photographs. The developer failed to respond.

Two years later, the owners’ association filed a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all owners, alleging defective construction against the community’s various developers and contractors. Tamko filed for a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration.

Circuit Court Judge J. C. Nicholson, Jr. denied the motion and ruled that Tamko’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the condominium owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms. The trial court held the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and unenforceable because of the cumulative effect of several oppressive and one-sided terms in the warranty.

The Court of Appeals begged to differ. It held that the circuit court erred in finding the arbitration clause in the warranty was unconscionable. It stated that our supreme court has made it clear that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The underlying sale of Tamko’s shingles was stated to be a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate warranty terms.

The court found it significant that the packaging contained a notation: “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund.

The appellate court also found it significant that the arbitration clause did facilitate an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker and that the arbitration clause was separable from the warranty.

Consider the exact opposite approach of the CFPB’s recently-announced proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits. That proposed rule can be read here and is the subject of a May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It’s interesting to see such different approaches by two authorities on an issue affecting consumers in the housing arena. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more to come from either ruling.

* One Belle Hall Property Owners Association, Inc. vs. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1,2016)